Even though the 4 a.m. phone call was part of an unannounced training exercise, the Wisconsin National Guard's 54th Civil Support Team (CST) responded as if the threat was real.
Maj. Joe Davison, 54th CST deputy commander, said the full-time, 22-person team conducts monthly unit-level exercises to remain proficient at the specialized skills required to respond to chemical, biological, radiologic or nuclear threats.
"Today is a little bit unique because we have external evaluators from U.S. Army North that do mandatory external evaluations of all civil support teams across the country," Davison explained. "They're here acting as our incident commander and also observer controllers of each functional area to make sure we're proficient in all skills."
The scenario facing the 54th CST on a warm and muggy Tuesday afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin, began with an envelope containing a suspicious white powder discovered in a building near the Dane County Regional Airport. The envelope's return address led the team to a vacant building several blocks away, where they discovered mock barrels of chemicals, a mock clandestine chemical laboratory and an object emitting mock radiation.
"You could call this a spot-check," said Lt. Col. Bruce Alzner, an evaluator with the U.S. Army North Civil Support Readiness Group. "We try to give them one a year."
The exercise called on the skills of every team member. While some donned large ó and warm ó protective suits to inspect suspected hazardous materials, others provided vital communications, medical assistance, chemical analysis and decontamination.
"We like to be self-sufficient," Davison said. "We want to enhance the capability the incident commander has, and make sure that as much as possible we're self-sustaining and able to assist him in the situation he has."
Alzner said his group evaluates teams on 12 collective tasks covering every functional area of a civil support team.
"From the command cell down to decontamination, medical, laboratory, communications, the folks who put the suits on and go downrange and collect samples and take the detection equipment ó these collective tasks cover what everybody on the team does," Alzner said. "Whether it's training lane or evaluation, we always look at those 12 tasks. All the teams in the U.S. get evaluated to the same standard. The only difference is when we do a training lane like this, the commander can ask us to emphasize certain areas ó we call those 'commander's training objectives.'"
Davison said his favorite part of the exercise was simply getting the team together and training as a unit.
"Often we have different sections doing training on their own to make sure our equipment is being maintained and their internal standard operating procedures are being conducted," Davison said. "But really, as a team here, we get away from the office and we get to operate together.
"Most of the missions that we do involve all of our team members," Davison continued. "That's what I like to see, that all of our team members are getting involved and contributing to make sure the mission is accomplished."
"It's going real well," Alzner said as the 54th CST approached the three-quarter mark of a training exercise that had already lasted more than 10 hours. "Optempo-wise, they've kept at it, made real good progress."